Monday Interview: Dan Macdonald, Macdonald Estates

In Dan Macdonald as with 'lookalike' Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan there's an ideas man at work. Picture: Jane Barlow
In Dan Macdonald as with 'lookalike' Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan there's an ideas man at work. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THERE is no-one answering the bell at reception, so the only option is to climb the winding staircase to the second floor of his George Street headquarters and knock on Dan Macdonald’s office door.

He smiles and apologises for the short-staffing caused by an unfortunate series of events, and then for having to make the coffee.

There is a lot of scurrying around between the kitchenette and his compact Georgian room, cafetiere in one hand and a kettle in the other. “I don’t do this often, so I hope it’s all right,” he jokes.

Self-help is hardly something new to this 64-year-old who even at an age when many are considering retirement is about to plunge himself into yet another initiative.

Macdonald, best known for his eponymous property company, Edinburgh-based Macdonald Estates, along with his SNP leanings, is launching something that goes by the curiously titled N-56.

It has a grand ambition: nothing less than changing the economic culture by way of greater collaboration between government and business. He believes current ways of working are obstructive and divisive, that everyone works in their own “silo” and that there is not enough sharing of information and transparency.

A 300-page report will be published, probably tomorrow or Wednesday, titled Scotland Means Business, that has been 15 months in the making and has engaged the minds of a number of research economists from Britain and overseas. Macdonald tasked them with looking at best practice and coming up with a way in which Scotland can develop a better national planning framework. They found that countries where a collaborative approach has been adopted, such as Denmark, Finland, Singapore and New Zealand, have seen their economies prosper as a result.

“It is obvious in their findings that it works elsewhere and it is obvious too that it doesn’t happen here,” says Macdonald, who is now devoting more of his time to the venture. He has spoken to several business leaders in Scotland who will be identified when the report is published. They have backed its call for greater long-term thinking, co-operation and shared goals.

It would be too simplistic, and incorrect, to assume Macdonald’s thoughts are tied up with his political affiliation. N-56 – named after Scotland’s latitude on the globe – has a set of objectives he wants to see pursued whatever the outcome of the referendum in September.

He reveals that despite being something of a business poster boy for the Yes campaign, he preferred the Devo Max option of giving Scotland more powers, at least until the country was ready for independence.

“Devo Max was not on the ballot paper,” he says, pointedly. “It would give us as near as full powers as we need. Devo Max would allow us more time, though eventually independence would be inevitable.”

He is not a member of the pro-independence Business for Scotland group and says he is now rejecting invitations to speak in favour of the Yes campaign only because he wants to spend more time on his new project.

He is already turning his attention to what sort of Scotland the country will wake up to after the referendum.

“My worry is that on 19 September [the day after the poll] Scotland becomes polarised and that there is too much triumphalism from one side and dejection on the other. We have to get past that. We cannot have Scotland divided.”

He argues that the economic world has changed significantly but policy making remains trapped in an old way of thinking and operating and that such constraints make progress difficult.

“We have moved on from the old Scargill-Thatcher divisions to something better, where collaboration and openness is fundamental to making progress,” he says. “It has to be the way forward and it would help push us up the league table of economic nations.”

His self-imposed target, and the purpose behind N-56, is nothing less than a change in the economic culture, a revolution in how decisions are reached and how this can transform the economy and society in general. He admits these are grand ideals and that it is a long-term objective with no easy fixes.

Despite taking a back seat in the Yes campaign he sits on its advisory board. He is also on the boards of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and of the homes and property awards. He is considering investing in renewables and continues to travel.

The day job involves seeking out good prospects for development and he is encouraged that the climate is improving, though he would like to see more liquidity in the market.

“The pension funds are awash with money and hopefully we will see them put it into something more speculative,” he says, adding that the lack of new building is prompting a boom in the investment market in existing developments.

So if he wants to see a revolution in government-business relations, why not go into politics, particularly as he has made such an impact during the independence campaign?

“I do not want to go into politics because I do not want to be part of the debate that does not go beyond party politics,” he says. “I have moved on to thinking what will happen after the referendum. I am not stepping back, but I am at the point where I want to focus on this plan.”

Macdonald hails from Dornoch and now lives in North Queensferry with his wife and young daughter. He bears a passing resemblance to Gordon Strachan, the Scotland football coach, and has often been mistaken for him.

“I once went into a shop in Spain and the shopkeeper’s immediate reaction was ‘Ah, football’. At least my daughter points out that I am taller.”

He admits that he’s also grateful that Strachan’s team is performing well, otherwise he might have to shoulder some unfair criticism. It’s likely, either way, that he’ll outlast his doppelganger and indignantly rejects any suggestion that he might be getting ready to put his feet up.

“I have no plans to retire, not at all,” he says.

30-second CV

Job: Chief executive, Macdonald Estates.

Born: Dornoch, Sutherland.

Age: 64.

Lives: North Queensferry.

Education: Dornoch Academy.

First job: Sutherland County Council architects’ department.

Ambition while at school: Architect or shepherd.

Car: Range Rover.

Interests: Travelling.

Favourite place: Grenada.

What makes you angry? Negativity and looking backwards.

Role models: Gandhi and Mandela.

Claim to fame: I hope N-56 will be it.

Favourite device: iPad – I can’t go anywhere without it.